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"Telling History on the Landscape,"

by James W. Loewen March/April 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

American history is taught so badly in high school that it interferes with students’ ability to think about contemporary race relations and poverty issues. I backed that sentence, which I hope got your attention, with three chapters of analysis in my 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong.

After the Civil Rights Movement authors did improve their treatments of slavery and Reconstruction. No longer do they portray slavery primarily as an acculturation tool that was toughest on the hard-working Master and Mistress. Now they even quote spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Although slavery is over, racism, slavery’s handmaiden, hardly disappeared in 1863 or 1865. It still haunts our society as slavery’s legacy to the present. Racism is invisible in American history textbooks, however, and in most high school history courses taught from them. I surveyed twelve history textbooks to write Lies My Teacher Told Me. Only five of the twelve list racism, racial prejudice or anything beginning with “race” in their indexes; I also searched under “white racism,” “white supremacy” and every other heading I could imagine. Nor is this merely bad indexing, for I scrutinized the texts themselves, to no avail.

The mentions of racism in the five textbooks are just that – mentions. Even more crippling to Americans’ ability to think about race relations today is the omission, in high school American history courses, of causation. When history textbooks do mention racism, they do not relate it to any historical cause. Here is the longest treatment of racism in any of the twelve books I examined:

[African Americans] looked different from members of white ethnic groups. The color of their skin made assimilation difficult. For this reason they remained outsiders.

This passage is a retreat from history to lay psychology of a “human nature” sort. Unfortunately for its argument, skin color in itself does not explain racism. Jane Elliot’s demonstrations in her Iowa classroom, made famous by the PBS Frontline video “A Class Divided,” show that children can quickly develop discriminatory behavior and prejudiced beliefs based on eye color. Conversely, the leadership positions that African Americans frequently reached among Native American nations show that people do not automatically discriminate against others on the basis of skin color.

To comprehend racism, one must understand its role as rationale for race-based slavery. Not one textbook discusses the relationship of racism and slavery. Therefore students are crippled from thinking rationally about this most emotional issue. Of course, treating slavery’s enduring legacy today would be controversial.

Where might young Americans go to remedy this deficiency? Having been bored to tears by their high school history courses, five-sixths of them never take a course in American history beyond high school. Americans do, however, display considerable interest in their past, and one way is by stopping at historical markers and monuments and visiting historic sites. Accordingly, I have spent much of the last four years looking at historic monuments, reading historical markers and visiting historic sites; later this year The New Press will publish the result, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong.

In some ways, historic sites are even worse than high school textbooks. Most historic markers and monuments in the United States tell heritage, not history. “The heritage syndrome,” as described by Cornell historian Michael Kammen in Mystic Chords of Memory, represents “an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest.” Thus most historic markers and monuments induce us to feel good, become more ethnocentric and remain historically ignorant. Most of those that treat slavery – the “antebellum homes” that compete for tourist dollars – still present slave plantations basically as amiable communities. When they mention slaves at all, guides at most plantation homes minimize the horrors of slavery. No antebellum house shows that slavery was a penal system, resting ultimately on force and threat of force. Never have I seen on display a whip, whipping post, chains, fetters or branding iron. Places like George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Maryland’s Hampton Manor never let slip that more than 90% of the people who lived there were held there against their will. Indeed, most slave sites mention slaves and slavery as little as possible. Everything gets done in the passive voice: this building “is where the laundry was done,” while that one “was for cooking.” Or the master did it himself: “Thomas Jefferson was forever rebuilding Monticello.”

About Reconstruction, the landscape is even less forthcoming. Indeed, Reconstruction goes almost unnoticed all across the South. Guides at antebellum plantations tell nothing about the economic and political changes that took place at their sites during Reconstruction. Reconstruction governors of Southern states get no statues; few even get historical markers.

Instead, monuments, markers and historic sites across the South celebrate the white racist Democrats who during the 1880s and 1890s reversed the democratic policies that interracial Republican administrations enacted during Reconstruction. North Carolina, for example, boasts two white politicians who effectively ended black political participation: Zebulon B. Vance, who helped end Reconstruction, and Charles B. Aycock, who helped destroy the interracial coalition that briefly dominated North Carolina in the Fusion period. Statues of Vance, elected governor in 1876, and Aycock, elected governor in 1900, face each other in a plaza of honor on the grounds of the State Capitol in Raleigh. They are also North Carolina’s two contributions to the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.

The Wilmington Riots

Individuals and local groups can change how their communities tell history on the landscape, however. And some changes have happened. One of the more encouraging developments took place last October in Wilmington, North Carolina.

During the Civil War, Wilmington had been the only major port the Confederacy controlled. In 1898, it was still the state’s largest city, and in that year occurred the notorious Wilmington “race riot.” The 1898 violence was crucial to the history of Wilmington and the state and even had considerable national significance. After the end of Reconstruction, Southern politics entered the uneasy Fusion Period. African Americans were still voting, but not freely. White Democrats didn’t want to risk federal enforcement of the 15th (Voting Rights) Amendment, so they didn’t disfranchise blacks outright. Republicans tried to keep their party alive but faced violence from nightriders; white Republicans also faced ostracism from their neighbors. Many whites were unhappy with the leadership of Democratic plantation owners; from time to time in various states coalitions emerged between Republicans and “Readjusters,” “Regulators” and Populists.

In North Carolina, Republicans were still strong in the eastern part of the state, including Wilmington, where African Americans were in the majority. In 1894, Populists, mostly white, and Republicans, mostly black, formed a Fusion ticket, succeeded in portraying the Democrats as tools of big-money interests such as the railroads, and won control of both houses of the state legislature. To keep blacks from power in majority black areas, in 1876 Democrats had put the state government in charge of many city and county governmental functions. In the process, whites had also lost local power. Hence both elements of the Fusion coalition united to re-establish home rule. The Fusionists also passed laws making it easier for blacks to vote. In 1896, due to increased black voting, the Fusionists won every statewide race in North Carolina, increased their legislative majorities and elected a white Republican, Daniel Russell of Wilmington, governor. In the 1897 municipal elections, the Fusion coalition elected six of Wilmington’s ten aldermen and the town’s mayor.

Democrats decided to fight back. Statewide, they mounted an overt white supremacy campaign in 1898, emphasizing the alleged lust that black males felt for white women. Vote Democratic, Charles Aycock and other party leaders urged, to keep your wives and sisters safe from black rapists. In Wilmington, Democrats planned a violent takeover. Red Shirts, the terrorist arm of the party in South Carolina, spread to North Carolina and menaced blacks and their white allies across the eastern part of the state. In Wilmington, the Red Shirts paraded throughout the downtown streets and then spent $1200 for a new Gatling gun.

In August, Alex Manly wrote an editorial in the local paper, the Record, opposing the call of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton for white men to “lynch a thousand times a week if necessary” to protect white women from black men. Manly observed that not every liaison between black men and white women was forced. Democrats protested that he had defamed white womanhood and vowed to destroy him and his newspaper. On November 8 there was little election day violence, but many blacks did not vote and the ballots of those who did may not have been tallied honestly. What had been a Republican majority of 5,000 votes in 1896 became a Democratic margin of 6,000 just two years later. Despite their victory, or flush with it, Democrats decided to take no chances. The next morning, they held a mass meeting led by Alfred Waddell in the courthouse and passed a “Wilmington Declaration of Independence.” It declared “we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled, by men of African origin.” The document also stated, “The negro” had “antagoniz[ed] our interest in every way, and especially by his ballot. . .” And it singled out “the negro paper” for “an article so vile and slanderous” that “we therefore owe it to the people . . .that the paper known as the Record cease to be published, and that its editor be banished from this community. . . . If the demand is refused, . . . then the editor Alex Manly will be expelled by force.” Manly had already fled, but whites summoned 32 prominent African Americans to meet with them late that afternoon to receive the declaration.

When these men did not respond rapidly enough overnight, 2000 whites paraded through down Wilmington on November 10 and demolished Manly’s newspaper office. Some blacks armed themselves, and gun battles broke out in which whites killed at least eight blacks and drove many others out of town. White groups then moved into the black sections of town, some seeking specific political leaders, others just hoping to kill anyone still there. In all, probably twenty African Americans were killed.

Immediately, Waddell called a meeting to select a new city government; it chose him as the new mayor. The mobs threatened the Republican mayor and aldermen, who thereupon resigned, one by one, as did the entire police department. The next morning, white Democrats and soldiers found six black Republicans who had not already fled the city, walked them to the train station, placed them under guard on a rail car and banished them forever.

As Leon Prather, Sr., wrote in Democracy Betrayed, “the black exodus was not limited to those who fled immediately or were banished by the victors.” By 1900, Wilmington was majority white. In that year, under Aycock’s leadership, Democrats disfranchised blacks statewide.

The events in Wilmington in 1898 were important nationally because they proved that a Republican administration would no longer intervene in the South, even when white Democrats pulled a coup d’etat. During the Fusion period this had not been clear. Indeed, in 1890 Republicans fell just one vote short of passing a “Federal Elections Bill” whose goal was to achieve honest elections in the South. The new wave of imperialism that swept the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War effectively ended the already tenuous Republican commitment for black rights, however. Democrats had never had any.

Wilmington’s New Historical Consciousness

For a century, Wilmington lived with the riot by forgetting about it (except in the black community) and maintaining white rule. In 1971, Wilmington again teetered on the edge of race war, with outbreaks of arson and gunfire from both blacks and whites. The 1990 Census showed Wilmington still quite segregated residentially, with an Index of Dissimilarity of 70. (The Index of Dissimilarity can range from 0 – perfect equality, with every Census block group having the same racial makeup – to 100 – apartheid, with all blacks in all-black block groups, all whites in all-white block groups.) Other North Carolina cities have indexes as low as 40, and the average for all U.S. cities was 64.

In 1998, however, a series of events, culminating in the placement of a new historical marker, may have helped Wilmington turn the corner. While some other American institutions were ignoring centennials that might have proven embarrassing – the Smithsonian, for instance, totally ignored our taking of the Philippines – Wilmington looked its past squarely in the eye. Blacks and whites met and set up an “1898 Centennial Foundation”; it adopted the slogan “A Community Effort for Remembrance and Reconciliation.” During the year, hundreds of Wilmington residents from all social strata met in small dialogue groups. The public library discussed “The Wilmington Riot of 1898 in Fiction.” The Foundation’s Ministerial Roundtable held a workshop that drew more than 50 clergy from the area. A community theater company mounted an original play on the riot. Business leaders were involved because economic development was one of the goals of the program. Wilmington leaders also had the humility and wisdom to solicit outside expertise, including the mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which in 1996 had similarly observed the 75th anniversary of its own 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

The highlight of these observances was the two-day seminar, “The 1898 Wilmington Racial Violence and Its Legacy,” held at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in late October. An impressive array of speakers participated, from descendants of victims of the violence to John Hope Franklin, fresh from his service chairing the Advisory Board of the President’s Initiative on Race. Many panelists were contributors to a new book, Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, published by the University of North Carolina Press on the occasion of the centennial.

Besides the book, the play, new connections among people and across groups, and new information imparted to audiences and participants in the year’s events, the centennial also left a legacy on the landscape. North Carolina erected a new state historical marker. With this new marker, Wilmington begins to tell more of its history.

The city’s historical landscape had been overwhelmingly white supremacist, including Gutzon Borglum’s dramatic bronze of “First Confederate Soldier to Fall…”; another Confederate monument; historical markers to Confederate General William W. Loring and Confederate spy Rose Greenhow; the Kenan Memorial Fountain donated by “a gallant soldier of the Confederacy”; a statue of George Davis, Attorney General of the Confederacy; a historic marker commemorating the Cape Fear Club, founded in 1866 and still all-white in 1999; and Hugh McRae Park, named for a leader of the 1898 mob.

Perhaps the events in Wilmington in 1998 can prove as important as those of 1898. Certainly Wilmington has shown how to reach across racial and class lines, recognize wrong-doing on the landscape, and move forward as a community. All across America, other communities can now invoke Wilmington as a model in facing the points of shame and inhumanity in their own pasts.

To learn more about how Wilmington did it, start with the website of the 1898 Centennial Foundation:, which includes a particularly useful 1998 “People’s Declaration of Racial Interdependence,” in deliberate counterpoint to the racist 1898 “Declaration of Independence.”

James W. Loewen is author of Lies My Teacher Told Me; The New Press released Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.

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